The Christopher Nolan Retrospective Part 3: Insomnia

The Christopher Nolan Retrospective continues! Last time, we examined the film that put Christopher Nolan on the map: Memento. Today, we look at his anticipated follow-up Insomnia and see how this one out of all of them seems to differ the most from the rest of Nolan’s filmography.
Just as before, I have to mention that I will be skipping the Batman films for now and save them for a Dark Knight trilogy special (Which will include The Dark Knight Rises) at the end of the retrospective. Also worthy of note, this article will feature major spoilers of the film being discussed. Thankfully, Insomnia is on Netflix Watch Instantly at this very moment so if you’d like to catch up with this marathon, you can watch along.
And if you’re just tuning in, you can read Part 1 on Following and Part 2 on Memento.
With that being said, it’s time to see Christopher Nolan’s first foray into Hollywood filmmaking…

“You and I share a secret. We know how easy it is to kill someone. That ultimate taboo. It doesn’t exist outside our own minds.”
It’s difficult to compare Insomnia to the rest of Christopher Nolan’s filmography because of how different it is. This is the least Nolan-y of his films, is what I’m getting at, here. The most obviuos difference this time is, of course, the fact that Christopher Nolan didn’t write this one. He’s written every single movie of his from Following to Memento to Batman Begins to Inception and so forth…except for Insomnia, which was written by Hillary Seitz who unfortunately went on to write the preposterous action-thriller Eagle Eye. On top of all that, Insomnia is a remake of a Norwegian film of the same name that starred Stellan Skarsgaard. I’m not going to get into how this film compares to the original film because a.) this is an article about Nolan’s filmography, not a review, and b.) I haven’t even seen the original film so I’m not one to judge.
But those are just the obvious differences. There are a few more that make this one stand out from the rest of Nolan’s work. One thing that I’ve noticed in all of his work is that no matter how long his films are, from an hour and ten minutes (Following) to two and a half hours (Inception), it never feels long because of his propulsive pacing. His films, no matter how dialogue or action-heavy they are, always feel like they’re moving forward. Nothing about them meanders, every scene has a point and builds off one another. That’s why so many people love to revisit The Dark Knight even though it is such a long film. As long as it is, there’s never a moment where you’re not engaged and there’s never a scene that doesn’t feel important to the big picture.
Insomnia is quite different in that its pacing is more of the slow-paced, meandering quality. That’s not an insult or a compliment, because that slow pace actually fits the material. If anything, the first half of the film feels like a mixture of the small-town murder plot of Twin Peaks crossed with the cold atmosphere of Fargo sprinkled with a bit of the quiet intensity of No Country For Old Men (Which is odd considering this came out quite a few years before No Country).
Christopher Nolan isn’t normally associated with low-key, atmosphere-driven movies, but Insomnia fits exactly into those categories. This is his most quiet, mood-driven film, that relies just as much on the unique midnight-sun setting as it does on its powerhouse cast.
Insomnia follows a police detective named Will Dormer (Al Pacino) who is sent to the town of Nightmute (Stray-observation: Is that not the most awesome name for a town ever?), a place where the sun doesn’t set for months, to investigate on the murder of a teenage girl named Kay. Dormer has a lot on his mind after an Internal Affairs investigation back at home that could ruin him, and his partner Hap Eckhart (Martin Donovan) says that he must go through with giving out a testimony on Dormer’s past cases.
While chasing the murder suspect in a wilderness swept with fog, Al Pacino accidentally shoots and kills his own partner, unable to see him because of the thickness of the fog. Knowing that as much of an accident as it was it will still look like he did it to get rid of Eckhart’s testimony, he lies and says that it was the killer who shot back. The investigation of the murderer continues further, but soon guilt starts to consume Dormer. And the merciless, unsetting sun doesn’t help things, as Dormer can’t even find solace in darkness or sleep.
The sense of place that Nolan achieves for the town of Nightmute is one of the biggest strengths in Insomnia. This is the first film in which Nolan starts to evolve in terms of imagery. Following and Memento were both very effective films, but none of them are very appealing on a visual standpoint. Here, because the atmosphere is so prevalent, the imagery is incredibly effective at creating an eerie mood that gives the film a psychological tension that manages to be low-key without being boring that absorbs the viewer. Because this is Nolan’s first time directing a film he didn’t write, you can see him trying to put his stamp on the film, and he does this through visuals and mood in an effective manner.
It’s worth noting how quiet the film is. Like I said, this is a mood-based film, and Nolan’s most restrained picture of his entire career. He lets each of the scenes play out naturally, sometimes with absolutely no background music, letting the actors and the visuals do the heavy lifting. You really feel a great sense of place for Nightmute, and Nolan effectively brings across how strange and alien the town is to Dormer. The consistently shining sun is just one of the many otherworldy touches brought to the film. There’s one scene that takes place in the evening in the middle of a street, but because of the unending daylight, it looks less like a sleeping town and more like an abandoned ghost town that could rival Silent Hill if it was given a few monsters.
Speaking of monsters, the most effective part about Insomnia is the performances. Sometimes, when novice filmmakers are given big-name actors at their disposal, they tend to not direct them because they’re either not good at controlling their egos or they would revere them so much that they wouldn’t direct them at all, thinking they already know what to do. Nolan exhibits fantastic control in the dialogue scenes. Like I mentioned before, he lets each of these scenes play out naturally, but at the same time each actor still feels restrained and never over dramatizes each scene.
Al Pacino doesn’t usually have many good performances in his recent career, but this is probably one of his best of that tier if not the best. His weary face communicates so much, while his line delivery has pain etched around his voice. Here is a man who is surrounded on all sides by guilt, and he is in a place that is forcing him to face it so strongly that not even the sun will set so he could hide in the darkness.
Robin Williams is especially good in one of his most unsettling dramatic performances next to One Hour Photo. He too shows so much pain through just his face and voice, except he plays the polar opposite of Al Pacino. Whereas Dormer can’t seem to live with his guilt, Williams’s Walter Finch is a man who holds his guilt as something not to be ashamed of. And when the two interact, it’s like watching water and oil co-mingle together and it’s highly fascinating.
Now, one thing I’ve always liked doing in these articles is finding the themes that link all of Nolan’s work. I found two themes that can be found in just about every Nolan film: The relationship between order and chaos (Following, The Dark Knight), and the subconscious shaping objective reality (Memento, Inception). None of these themes are especially prevalent in Insomnia, however, seeing as it wasn’t written by Christopher Nolan at all. If anything, the main theme is a pretty common one about how all your past misdeeds will always come back to haunt you and what goes around always comes around. There are hints of Nolan-isms such as the quote I put up in which Walter Finch says that death and the act of murder “doesn’t exist outside our own minds”, but they’re left to the side for the more prevalent theme that you can’t escape your past crimes.
So what was it that attracted Nolan to the material? I mean, of course being able to work with Al Pacino and Robin Williams in a bigger-budget studio film must’ve been part of it, but what about it made Christopher Nolan want to make this movie in the artistic sense?
It is at this point, we get to what could be considered a third theme that can be found in all of Nolan’s work, but I consider it to be less of a “theme” and more of a certain “character type” or a “character trait”. This little “sub-theme”, I guess you can call it, is the relationship between reason and logic vs. emotion.
This could be considered a variation of the “order vs. chaos” thing, except there’s kind of a difference between that and “logic vs. emotion”. For one thing, order and chaos have to do with the world around us and who we are in an external context (See Following). “Logic vs. emotion” meanwhile, has to do with who we are as individuals. In short, “Logic and emotion” are basically the “order and chaos” of our own minds.
Okay, so there is still a connection to that theme, but you get what sets these two things apart, see?
In all of Christopher Nolan’s films (And I mean all of them), the main characters hold professionalism as their highest virtue, but they are ultimately brought down or damaged by emotional interference. In Following, Bill had to detach himself from the people he followed so as not to complicate things, but when he does it ruins him. In Memento, Leonard relied solely on facts and objective evidence, but when he lets his desire for purpose and vengeance get in the way, he ends up creating himself an unsolveable puzzle so he could live in blissful ignorance of his true actions for the rest of his life. It’s because of this that you realize why Hollywood saw Nolan as the perfect fit to handle Batman: Because Batman himself fits that character type. He’s an emotionally damaged man who must rely on detaching himself from his own emotions by creating an altar ego to pent up his frustrations in order to achieve his goals.
In Insomnia that’s Detective Dormer in a nutshell. Just take a look at the scene in which he confesses to planting a blood sample on someone’s shirt in order to have a man arrested. It wasn’t by the book, it shouldn’t have been personal, and he knew it was wrong, but he had to do it. He thought it was the right thing, he thought that following his heart would get the man deservedly arrested. But it ends up becoming his death knell. Now, he constantly has guilt on his mind, and it’s led to an even worse crime in lying about the accidental death of his partner, which leads to when he ultimately cooperates with Finch.
It is because of this that critics of Nolan’s work like to say that his films are emotionally cold. And while I have to strongly disagree with those critics (I found Memento to have some powerful moments, and I’ll tell you about another movie that I think is Nolan’s best later in this marathon), perhaps that coldness is supposed to be the point. It’s there to show how these characters’ minds work, and thusly make us closer to them.
Insomnia isn’t really a “great” movie by any means. Hilary Swank’s character isn’t given much to do, and it ends in a shoot-out scene that feels very obligatory, like the studio forced it on the writer. But it’s an incredibly effective, subtle thriller with tense moments and fantastic performances.
So while Insomnia can be considered one of Nolan’s lesser films (despite how good it is), it’s still an important part of his filmography. Not only did he show that he could sustain his talents as a director without needing his own script, but it also showed that he could work on a studio film with an A-list cast without having to conform to the pressures of the studio…most of the time.
You can almost say that Insomnia‘s dreary mood and powerhouse performances mixed with Memento‘s imaginative storytelling helped Nolan get his gig as the helmer for Batman Begins. But we’ll save that discussion for our special Dark Knight Trilogy round-up. Of course, I can say that Batman Begins was Christopher Nolan’s biggest financial success at that time and put him on the map for mainstream audiences, but what happens when he follows that up with a more personal project: A period-piece about warring magicians.
Tune in next time for my analysis of Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige. And prepare for the biggest shock of all: I still haven’t seen The Prestige yet, and it’s the only Nolan film that I’ve forgotten to check out. Until now. An exciting discussion awaits!
That is all. If you liked this article and would like to read more, you can do so by clicking the following links: CinEffect on BlogSpot, CinEffect on Tumblr, my own personal tumblr, and my Twitter account @CGRunyon where you can follow me for more reviews, articles, and other random thoughts about what I like. Also be sure to follow my two friends who help out with CinEffect with their own reviews or podcast cohosting sessions: @TBBucs20 & @ThatGuyBrady.
See ya next time. Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s time for me to confront my greatest fear…no, it’s not bats. It’s mailmen. Bye!
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